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Body of Evidence at Somerset House

Dealing with the representation of identity, this exhibition by the King’s Cultural Institute operates at the boundary between artistic interpretation and digital imaging

Jean-Paul Sartre once stated that Marx’s originality lay in the fact that he demonstrated that ‘being’ is irreducible to knowledge – an assertion that, once properly understood, perfectly describes the divide between the sciences (which seek to pursue knowledge and render truths in quantifiable terms) and the humanities (which might be more inclined to argue for the persistence of vagaries). Between: Embodiment and Identity takes as its subject such infinite – and perhaps ultimately unanswerable – disputes.

Deep in the East Wing of Somerset House, the curators from King’s College London have gathered a series of contemporary works exploring how subjective identity has become embodied in a powerful landscape of cutting edge anatomical imagery. Working in collaboration with neuroscientist Richard Wingate of the college’s MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, the exhibition ‘celebrates the richness of scientific research and presents works which collectively challenge technology’s entitlement to mediate form.’

The sophistication of medical imagery has led to prolific advances in the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders over the past decade, but how such imagery has affected our understanding of the ‘self’ is something that has been largely omitted from philosophical discourse. Does such technology have the capacity to formalise ‘being’ for instance, with all the subjective nuances that such a term implies? With each artist presenting their own critique on the proliferation of medical imagery into the ontological debate, the exhibition forces us to address these very questions.

Packed neatly into the Inigo Rooms, the work covers an impressive array of subject matter within such a modest space; with artists Andrew Carnie, Karen Ingham and Susan Aldworth collectively examining diverse phenomena – apoptosis (a ‘cell suicide mechanism’); brain lesions; out-of-body experiences; the pluripotency of stem cells; Geschwind syndrome – through the media of print, animation, film,  lithography, photography and painting. Having gained experience with both patients and doctors at hospitals and medical institutions across the country, each artist attempts to address both the clinical and emotive aspects of such conditions.

In some cases this is achieved quite simply. In Variance, Karen Ingham overlays ethereal brain scans onto photographic portraits. As we study the images we begin to ask how the scans (which show the specific brain activity that indicates a ‘thought’) give us either a better insight into the subject and their personality or, perhaps more intriguingly, enlighten us further as to what that thought might be?

Other works convey similar tensions. Made up entirely of cerebral angiograms, the Rorschach-esque collages of Susan Aldworth are at first glance strikingly beautiful, but we soon learn that they in fact depict brain lesions that have resulted in irrevocable changes in a patient’s personality. Herein lies the power of the exhibition: regardless of the accuracy of contemporary technology, much of the medical imagery remains illegible to the layperson, and so such images remain formal abstractions. It thus becomes the role of the artist to communicate their subjective significance through the more accessible (though far less specific) techniques of metaphor and emotive suggestion.

As one might expect from an exhibit curated by a department of neuroscience, the works tend to reify the persistent Cartesian belief that ‘mind’ is the product of the brain alone. While many progressive neurologists such as Antonio Damasio and Lambros Malafouris are questioning the integral relationship between mind, body, and even external artefacts, it would have been germane to see more works that attest to such alternative lines of enquiry.

That being said, there are a few pieces within the exhibition that allude to such interests. Ingham’s short film, Narrative Remains, takes autopsy transcripts from the records of London’s Hunterian Museum and presents them alongside semi-fictional narratives told from the perspective of the preserved organs. Such curious accounts not only serve to exemplify the ways in which our environment forms assemblages with specific parts of the body, but perhaps more intriguingly how these, in turn, have lives of their own that contribute explicitly to the subjective personality.


Andrew Carnie’s installation Seized: Out of this World portrays the liminal space of temporal lobe epilepsy

Having worked with neuropsychologist Paul Broks in his study of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), Andrew Carnie similarly extends the idea of identity to include the somatic realm. His installation, Seized: Out of this World, is an immersive piece that subtly portrays the shifting sense of body and space experienced by patients during their fits. The possessive use of ‘their’ is critical here, because Carnie wishes to examine the deeply individual nature of such occurrences. For while the fits are disruptive and often highly distressing, some people with TLE have been known to refuse methods of available treatment because they have become such an inherent part of their identity. The fits themselves apparently create a liminal space in which another, sometimes highly creative subject, emerges.

Set alongside fascinating medical imagery, such emotive insights and metaphor [s?] make for an engrossing exhibition. While it is neither as overtly informative as the Wellcome Collection’s current Brains exhibition, nor as wry in its delivery as David Shrigley’s work at the Hayward Gallery, BETWEEN: Embodiment and Identity instead chooses to direct its attention keenly towards us: the subject. In doing so it demands an acute level of introspection that is found in exhibitions perhaps less frequently than it should be, and as such should be welcomed all the more.

BETWEEN: Embodiment and Identity

Venue: Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing

City: London

Dates: Until 30 June 2012

A cross-disciplinary workshop in June aims to open up discourse between the artists, scientists and the general public.

Readers' comments (2)

  • What a brilliantly written review. I haven't yet seen this show but based on this piece of writing I'll do my best to see it.

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  • Great review of a sophisticated and beautiful exhibition. NB, entrance via KCL reception or Strand entrance, not via Somerset House square.

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